Well, it's happened. The Chiefs are a few games into the season and the pitchforks are already out. Let me make a bold statement. If Todd Haley is fired, then the Chiefs are committing a grave injustice.
A head coach can only coach the players he's given to work with. But naturally, the head coach is the first person you look to when the fingers start pointing. Some of the Chiefs' problems in 2011 are due to poor decisions made by Haley. Some are due to extraordinarily bad luck. Yet more are due to the fact that this team is still a little flawed regardless of who is coaching.
Would the Chiefs have been competitive had Moeaki, Berry, and Charles been healthy? Did Scott Pioli give Haley the pieces to field a competitive team? And, while Todd Haley has made some mistakes as a head coach, how many of those mistakes could have been avoided through front office intervention?
After answering those questions, it's hard to be too tough on Todd Haley. More after the jump.
Would the Chiefs have been competitive had Moeaki, Berry, and Charles been healthy?
Tough question. The argument you make is that the Chiefs made the playoffs in 2010 with the same pieces, but they also added Le'Ron McClain, Kelly Gregg, and Steve Breaston--three players who significantly upgrade the Chiefs. Yes, the Chiefs had an easy schedule in 2010. And yes, it's possible that Charlie Weis was largely responsible for some of the Chiefs' success last season. But I still believe the Chiefs could have been bubble playoff contenders in 2011 had they fielded a fully healthy roster. A team as thin as the Chiefs simply cannot afford to lose that many key contributors and expect to stay competitive.
Did Scott Pioli give Todd Haley the pieces to field a competitive team?
The success of a football team 9 times out of 10 starts with the Quarterback. This is clearly the most critical question we have to ask in year 3: is Matt Cassel a "good enough" Quarterback or is he a Super Bowl calibre Quarterback? If he's not a Super Bowl Quarterback, then what's the Plan B? I don't fault Pioli at all for taking a chance on Cassel and, frankly, Cassel still deserves time to work some things out with Jim Zorn. I like that Pioli made the trade, gave Cassel a huge contract, and then immediately gave him the keys to the franchise. You have to take those kind of chances on a Quarterback.
What I have a hard time understanding is why the team treated him like Neo from the Matrix. Why was he treated like "the One?" They decided he didn't need a Quarterbacks coach in year 1 and even after some struggles in 2009, they never tried to bring in a young Quarterback to groom in the background. When the Patriots had Tom Brady, they drafted multiple Quarterbacks to compete for a backup position. Why wouldn't the Chiefs do the same with Cassel? How far does that set the Chiefs back? Well, barring some kind of miracle where Cassel either shows tremendous improvement or the Chiefs somehow manage to bring some kind of elite Quarterback into the mix, the Chiefs will probably need to draft a Quarterback next year. You figure that will take about 2-3 years to develop a championship-level Quarterback. If you're wrong on that Quarterback, you set the team back another 3 or 4 years. On most rosters, you see a struggling Quarterback and immediately think of an option they believe has an outside chance of being a good Quarterback in the NFL. If you start that process early, if you don't like the backup Quarterback in year 1, you draft a new backup in year 2. The Chiefs didn't have that until this year and nobody really knows if Stanzi is a guy you want to rest the future of the franchise on.
But more importantly, did Pioli land a franchise Quarterback in Matt Cassel? At this point, it's tough to say "yes." When I watch Aaron Rodgers drop back to pass, I feel confident that most of the time he's going to make a smart decision, understand his pocket, and throw the ball in the perfect spot. When I say he'll throw it in the perfect spot, I'm saying that in many cases it's going to be inches away from the defenders' fingertips and it's going to be on the exact shoulder it needs to be thrown to. Cassel doesn't inspire that same confidence yet. He looked sharp against the NFC West, but in other cases, you still worry about his pocket presence, you worry about his ability to throw a catchable ball (let alone the accuracy to throw pinpoint strikes), you worry about him getting the ball into the player's breadbasket let alone to the exact shoulder, and you worry about some of his decision-making, whether that's holding on to the ball too long, being unable to see beyond the primary read, or too quickly opting for the safety valve instead of taking chances downfield.
I get that the Chiefs are a running team, but they can't always rely on Jamaal Charles to dominate defenses that throw 8 men in the box. Defenses aren't going to do that anymore with Charles out of the lineup. Cassel needs to prove he can throw downfield. If Cassel isn't the answer, then you make it really difficult for Haley. You have to ask the coach to work around the Quarterback. You have to build a solid running game, even though the passing game is ineffective at moving defenders out of the box. You ask Romeo Crennel to coordinate a defense that exhausts itself because the offense can't stay on the field.
The past few games and even to a large extent last year, you saw the Chiefs make some extremely conservative playcalls. Last week, you saw a lot of runs and dump-offs on third and long situations. That indicates one of two things, and neither of them are good. That means the coaches either don't trust Cassel in those situations or Cassel is checking off too soon to his safety valve because he doesn't trust his ability to throw downfield.
What about the... other guys?
Here's another question that should be asked: did Scott Pioli force-fit the Patriots' system into Kansas City? In Pioli's search for character players, look at who he passed on. The Chiefs purposely chose character over talent when they selected Tyson Jackson over B.J. Raji; Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas over Terence Cody. In 2011, when he chose talent over character, he maybe passed up on a legit starting QB in Andy Dalton, who looks like he could be a pretty good young option.
In Atlanta, Thomas Dimitroff is running a totally different defensive system. You have to wonder if the Chiefs should have too. I'm torn on this and I'll tell you why. It does worry me that the Chiefs are relying on a 2-gap 3-4 system that even the Pats don't use anymore, largely because it requires bigger, slower personnel that creates limited pressure from the front 3. On the other hand, in watching the Chiefs lose to the Chargers on Sunday with a depleted cast, a thought occurred to me (and it's a thought I stewed on quite a bit in 2010, even when Cassel supposedly had a good season. Supposedly). Romeo Crennel relies on a "bend don't break" defense and to his credit, it's worked remarkably well in games where the offense hasn't asked too much of their defense. Dating back to last season, Cassel has been tremendously ineffective at 3rd down efficiency and there are only so many times you can allow costly turnovers to give the opposing offense tremendous field position. Too often, the Chiefs go an entire first half with less than a handful of first downs. People forget that against Baltimore, the Chiefs really held their ground on defense. I still believe they lost largely due to costly mistakes on offense in the third quarter.
In summary, the question you have to ask is, did Scott Pioli give a good enough roster that Bill Bellichick (without Brady) could have taken to the promised land? I just don't think you can answer 'yes' to that. The team is talented enough to easily support Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork. But Matt Cassel is no Tom Brady and Ron Edwards is no Vince Wilfork.
How many of Haley's mistakes could have been avoided through front office intervention?
Todd Haley has taken a few gambles that haven't panned out. I'm sure if he could do things all over again, he maybe would have conditioned his players better in the preseason. But Haley also made several mistakes that could have and should have been prevented through front office intervention. After all, Pioli is the boss of Haley, not the other way around.
For the record, I don't know the answer to the following questions, but they're things to stew over. Was either or both Chan Gailey and Charlie Weis forced on Todd Haley? I wonder if Gailey was preferred by Clark Hunt and Weis by Pioli. Because clearly nobody is jazzed up about Bill Muir calling the shots. The answer to that question is pretty important, because it either indicates that the front office intervened when they shouldn't have or it suggest that Haley is simply impossible to work with. If it's the latter, that's not any kind of achilles heel, since Haley would probably do just fine calling his own plays.
Does Todd Haley deserve to keep his job?
Again, there are things that go on on the inside that we're just not privy to. Maybe Haley doesn't command respect from his players or anyone. But I do believe he has done the best with what he was given. He coached up Derrick Johnson and Dwayne Bowe in ways previous coaches could not. He inherited a fat, lazy squad and turned them into a disciplined group of veterans who are eagerly re-signing contracts to stay in Kansas City. During his time, we've seen Flowers, Carr, Hali, and Dorsey blossom. We saw Jamaal Charles become an elite Running Back.
The only guy who hasn't peaked is Cassel. But is that due to poor coaching or was the talent just not there to begin with? Charlie Weis and Jim Zorn are two good coaches to learn from. Yet, in three years, I've seen more strides from a lot of the drafted players like Matt Stafford than I have from Cassel.
I know some of this post may sound critical of Scott Pioli for the way he's run Kansas City, but it's not really. I still believe that with a very good Quarterback and a healthy roster, the Chiefs are a legit contender. Haley takes some gambles that make you cringe sometime, but I think he puts together a good gameplan week after week and he gets the most out of his players. I sure hope he doesn't take the fall for mistakes that trickled from the top-down.